Sunday, August 28, 2011

Innovative interiors

A year ago I was lucky enough to visit Wooranna Park Primary School in Melbourne as part of a few days visiting modern learning environments. One of the most striking aspects of the interior of the school are the incredible structures that Principal Ray Trotter has constructed in the classrooms. One space had a two storey red bus at the centre of it and another a cylindrical tower leading up to a reading area. Under construction in another room was a dragon boat.
A team of our teachers returned there last week and were pleased to report the completion of the construction. Upstairs is a library area and there a couple of computers hooked up to google maps and downstairs there's a computer space and a workshop space. Surely this is a space that would qualify as a space that stimulates and a space to play.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Connecting learning spaces and student outcomes

Much of the dialogue around open learning spaces seems to focus on student outcomes and whether or not the space is making a difference.
The literature review by Blackmore, Bateman, Loughlin and O’Mara (2011) goes a long way to gathering together relevant research in order to help answer just that question. Commissioned by Victoria, Australia’s Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, it acknowledges that despite all the recent state investment in building, there has been little international research connecting learning spaces and student outcomes. This, therefore, is an important document.

The question that the review asked was: “To what extent does the literature show connections between learning spaces and student learning outcomes in schools?” It presents information on theoretical and empirical connections made between the space and outcomes, identifies gaps in the research, as well as reporting emerging themes.

The report takes a broad view of learning outcomes to include social, affective, physical as well as cognitive changes in students. These include such elements as standardized test scores, learner engagement, quality of student and teacher interactions, evidence of increased interpersonal competencies, individuals’ perceptions of belonging and inclusion, and behavioural indicators such as retention and absenteeism.

The findings are very valuable as they not only pull together themes and findings from a wide range of literature but also because they reveal gaps that need to be filled:

“Much of the literature focuses on the quality of conditions, perceptions or tangibles rather than educational practices or intangibles in terms of how space is perceived, used, and with what effect. The research literature is concentrated in the design phase. While informed by both contemporary architectural and educational research as to what is best design and best practice, there is little empirical research that considers what happens once in the space” (p. v).

The emphasis therefore for future research needs to shift away from the design process and next to consider how teachers and learners operate in the space once it has been established. What are the key pedagogical changes needed to teach in the space and how are they different from teaching in a ‘single cell’ classroom? Importantly too to look at new possibilities; what teaching and learning opportunities are engendered by the provision of these new spaces?


Blackmore, J., Bateman, D., Loughlin, J., & O'Mara, J. (2011). Research into the connection between built learning spaces and student outcomes: Literature review. Melbourne: Department of Education and Early Childhood Development. Retrieved from

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Shared leadership space

In a school where we are setting out to use spaces to develop and enhance collaborative practice, it seems only natural that the leadership team work in the same way. So instead of having separate offices for the principal and associate principals, we have a shared space where the three of us work. There’s also a couple of smaller rooms close by for those phone calls, parent interviews and learning conversations that require more privacy.

It was a decision our principal made early on in the building process and one that seems to be paying dividends. It’s about having congruence between our beliefs about the type of learning environment and culture we want to nurture and develop, and the practical ways we demonstrate it.

It’s been interesting to reflect on how things might be different if we were in individual leadership offices. Would the culture of collaboration and of dialogue about learning be the same? And how about the incidental professional development that occurs in a shared space? I wonder too if there are any decisions that we’ve made that have resulted from being in a shared space?

In the same way we’re asking about the relationship between pedagogy and space in teaching and learning spaces, perhaps we should be asking the same related to our leadership space. What opportunities are engendered by the provision of this different use of space?

I’m only aware of one local high school that has a similar shared leadership space and it would be interesting to learn about how others have found this approach. 

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Open-plan in New Zealand

Much of my own reading around open-plan schools has been centred on research carried out in England. A recent visit to Auckland University library though uncovered a Department of Education publication, a Report on Open Plan Education in New Zealand Primary Schools, published in 1977.

By the mid 1970s, according to the report, there were 200 open plan units in New Zealand, catering for 3.5% of primary children. This was set to grow to 474 and 8% by the end of 1978. At the time of the report two-thirds of the units had been operating for less than two years. Many of these units existed in schools that also had more traditional teaching classrooms.

The report was the result of a systematic study into open-plan schools, albeit in their early stage of development in New Zealand, and brought together views of teachers, principals and architects. What it recognized was that increased numbers of children were being taught in open-plan schools, and that whilst there was a body of evidence in the UK in support of them, the debate “lacked an adequate empirical basis in New Zealand practice” (p. 9). The report therefore set out to address such areas as the adequacy of training of teachers for open-plan, the attitudes towards it from teaching staff and the professional educational practices required from teachers.

The report’s primary recommendation was that:
“We recommend that the development of open plan education be continued and that this development be subject to continuing evaluation” (p. 11).

The report discusses the general satisfaction with open-plan education and the “favourable views of benefits for children expressed by a majority of the principals of schools with open plan units, teachers in open plan units at the time of the survey, and teachers who had formerly taught in open plan units” (p. 12).

Despite its recommendation the report did make some qualifications; that many principals and teachers were dissatisfied with some features of the open-plan units; that 55% of teachers reported a higher level of stress that when working in a traditional classroom; that some teachers were concerned about the effect on new entrants, disruptive children and shy children; and that only a minority of teaches received any training for teaching in the new spaces.

In response to some of these qualifications the report suggested that in building schools with open-plan units, there should also be provision for more traditional spaces as well. It noted that spaces should not be built to accommodate any more than the equivalent of four classes of children, and that there should be a withdrawal space large enough for fifteen children. It also suggested that pre-service training be provided in areas of co-operative teaching and in the use of open-plan spaces.

I think what’s interesting looking at the report now was the relatively small amount of it dedicated to student outcomes and learning. The information collected on students consisted, as it says, “of the opinions of both present and former open plan teacher, principals and inspectors” (p. 57). Of these a large majority surveyed agreed that achievement was “at least as high as in conventional classrooms” (p. 66). Of real interest though is the fact that of the principals (83% of whom headed schools that also had traditional classroom spaces) a large majority favoured open-plan.

There’s a lot more to be pulled out of this report and I’m interested to look further into the views of teachers at the time. It’s interesting too, to consider the projections that there would be potentially close to 500 open-plan units in New Zealand schools at the end of the 1970s. I wonder how many there are left now?


Department of Education. (1977). Report on open plan education in New Zealand. Wellington: Department of Education.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

I wish I worked there!

The premise behind I wish I worked there! is simple: In order to be constantly innovative, businesses need to create spaces in which to innovate. By isolating the environmental factors that enable this process to happen Kursty Groves sets out to show that physical space “can be used as a tool within the creative process” (p. 10). On her journey visiting some of the most successful companies in the world she identifies four main categories of creative environment. Spaces that stimulate, spaces for reflection, spaces for collaboration and spaces to play.

The book takes her far and wide to some of the most extraordinary work environments. There’s Goggle’s water lounge to encourage ‘chillaxing’; Lego’s Innovation Room, a blank canvas on which to create; Nike’s running trail dotted with bronze statues of sporting legends; and Aardman’s meeting spaces designed into corridors and staircases.

They are the types of spaces that would probably appeal to Sir Ken Robinson. Creativity, he defines in The Element (2009) is applied imagination, “It involves putting your imagination to work to make something new, to come up with solutions to problems, even to think of new problems or questions” (p. 67). And creativity he posits is something sorely missing from our education system. In fact something that he believes is systematically drained from children.

As educators we are constantly being reminded that we’re preparing learners for an unknown future. Remember the original Did you know? It suggested that, “We are currently preparing students for jobs  that don’t yet exist... using technologies that haven't yet been order to solve problems we know don’t even know are problems yet”. So how do the environments support the creativity that is being demanded of us?

The companies that Kursty Groves visits in her book are all examples of highly successful creative spaces. These are truly inspiring buildings where creativity is valued and nurtured. Suspend for a moment the constraints of budget and think, ‘How could schools benefit from the same thinking?’ How could our schools ensure there are spaces that stimulate, spaces for reflection, spaces for collaboration and spaces to play. It’s an interesting exercise and I wonder how they might look. Are they already our there? Perhaps there’s potential for a sequel Kursty, ‘I wish I learned there!’


Groves, K. (2010). I wish I worked there! A look inside the most creative spaces in business. Chichester: Wiley

Robinson, K. (2009). The Element: How finding your passion changes everything. London: Penguin

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Survivor: Open-plan

I’m not sure it’s going to make such compelling viewing as a group of competitors attempting to outwit, outplay and outlast each other on a isolated tropical island, but clearly some academics in the mid 1970s thought that teachers needed to think carefully before putting themselves into an open-plan situation. Survival was the key.

Beardsley, Bricker and Murray (1973), in a report for the Metropolitan Toronto School Board suggested that whilst there was much literature at the time exhorting the virtues of open-plan classrooms, there was in fact very little empirical research backing it up and certainly little by way of practical advice for teachers entering them. They suggested that criticism in the popular press focused on students not learning the basics, children needing more privacy, students having fun “but not learning to cope with the harsh realities of life” (p. 47), having too much freedom and missing out on the flexibility and spontaneity available in more traditional classrooms.

Staff relations, according to the report, were most critical for an open-plan environment to succeed. “The fact that teachers must work in full view of one another generally means that they must also interact with one another” (p. 48). In a traditional school, the report continues, teachers were able to close doors if they didn’t get along or want to work together but that wasn’t possible in an open-plan situation. There needed to be good communication, respect and trust in order for it all to work.

The report also addresses the issue of team teaching and suggests that working closely with colleagues in a team teaching situation requires “qualities that are quite different from those traditionally emphasized for teachers. In addition to organizational skills, successful team teaching requires flexibility, ability to cooperate and work effectively with other adults, consideration of others, ability to accept conventional criticism and to criticize constructively” (p. 50). The absence of a personal space defined by walls was seen as a real threat to teacher’s sense of territory and physical wellbeing. It’s interesting to reflect on the ‘qualities’ of teachers who are going to find success teaching in modern learning environments.

A second paper along the Survivor theme came out of Stanford University a few years later in 1976 suggesting that “teachers are convinced that their relationships with students, their instructional programs, their friendships with other teachers, and even their ‘sanity’ are at stake” (Roper and Nolan, 1976, p. 5). The paper was authored to help prepare teachers, administrators and students move into new open-space buildings and has a strong compliance focus in order to enable properly running schools. “It is intended to help teachers systematically plan to prevent chaos” (p. 8). I’m not sure what proportion of teachers who read it continued their move into open-plan.

What needed to be focused on, according to Roper and Nolan, by was of coordinated efforts from the teachers, things like enforcing standards for student behaviour, agreeing on movement patterns, scheduling activities to minimise noise, arranging furniture and equipment, and involving parents. So there is a strong emphasis on whole school rules- “Students cannot move to another teacher’s area without permission” (p. 9).

In fact, in the first week of one school opening their new building, all students were required to complete a behavior monitoring checklist each day and to retake it until they scored 100%: “I came in the correct door quietly, I completed my dictionary work, I found my seat easily, I quietly cleaned up my area, I remembered to put my chair in, I turned this checklist in at the correct door when leaving” (p. 11).

There is a strong sense from both of these papers of teachers insufficiently prepared for teaching in these open-plan environments and also a sense of some teachers being forced into these spaces. A strong sense too of it being a teacher’s environment rather than a learners. Beardsley et al do at least acknowledge that “what the open plan school can offer is the possibility of alternatives” (p. 50) and that any school is only going to be as successful as people make it.

Aside from the Survivor overtones, the language of coping, teacher’s sanity at stake, personal trauma and unlimited possibilities for chaos, there are perhaps some lessons we can learn here.

No, a modern open learning space is not for everyone and teachers do need to consider if it’s a good fit for them. Yes, teachers are more ‘on display’ to each other, but what opportunities that presents in terms of incidental professional development. Yes, teachers need to interact with each other but what opportunities that presents in terms of pedagogy and collaboration. And this I think is the key. It’s about collaboration, not competition.

It’s about the space belonging to the learners, not to the teachers. It’s about engaging with the environment rather than it being a barrier to learning. And its about thriving in a place designed for engaging, creative, fulfilling learning rather than simply surviving in it. I’m excited by the opportunities presented by modern open learning spaces and for me this is an island I don’t want to get voted off.


Beardsley, B., Bricker, K., & Murray, J. (1973). Hints for survival in open plan schools. Curriculum Theory Network(11 Spring, 1973), 47-64.

Roper, S. S., & Nolan, R. R. (1976). How to survive in the open-space school: Stanford University.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Furnishing open spaces

There is a lot to consider when thinking about how to furnish open learning spaces. This is a great video showing how furniture can impact on a learning environment. There are some great quotes from teachers as well as some key questions to reflect on.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Eveline Lowe School: A design prototype

Continuing to look at early open-plan schools, a second example, taken from Pamela Wollner’s book (2010) is Eveline Lowe Primary School in Southwark, London. It was constructed in 1966 and built on the ideas of Finmere School. It developed the open-plan idea further and for a much bigger urban school and was “intended that the school should act as a prototype to be emulated across the UK” (Woolner, 2010, p.9). According to Woolner, this did eventuate as school building took off in the 60s and 70s, to the extent that by the mid 70s the architectural assumption was that open plan was the norm for primary schools.

Eveline Lowe school was built on an L-shaped plan arranged into four areas, each with plenty of open space. Bennett et al (1980) explain that the teaching spaces were contained learning bays, interest areas, workshop spaces and home bases where groups of children could work with teachers. What is interesting too is that it was noted by the Plowden Report (England, 1967) as a space that would allow teachers to “‘cooperate more easily’ and to provide for ‘flexibility of organization and individual learning’” (Cited in Bennett et al, 1980).

In questioning the relative success of Eveline Lowe School in comparison with subsequent open-plan schools, Woloner (2010) suggests that it benefitted from being an original, “with later copies becoming increasingly formulaic, ill-considered and lazily implemented” (p. 10). She also makes the important point that the building took up a much larger area than the majority of schools built over that period. How much space we should be providing per student is a valid consideration.

Interestingly Eveline Lowe School (reported in e-architect) has undergone substantial changes in the last couple of years. Selected as a pre-cursor to the Schools for the Future programme, it has recently expanded to accommodate more children and modernized whilst still respecting its design philosophy and open-plan arrangement. The original buildings, since listed, have been left intact and refurbished. It’s interesting to view old and new together.


Bennett, N., Andreae, J. et al. (1980). Open Plan Schools. Windsor: Schools Council
England, Central Advisory Council for Education (1967). Children and their Primary Schools: A report of the Central Advisory Council for Education, England. London
Woolner, P (2010). The design of Learning Spaces. London: Continuum

Image of Eveline Lowe School interior retrieved from
Image of exterior of old Eveline Lowe School retrieved from
Image of exterior of new Eveline Lowe School retrieved from